You’re familiar with “The Most Dangerous Game,” that old short story about a rich man who hunts humans for sport. There are tasteful ways you could update it for the modern era; “Series 7,” a dark and funny satire from 2001, does just that. “The Condemned” makes no attempt to be tasteful, or even clever. It goes the brutal route instead: Put 10 death-row convicts on an island, make them kill each other until only one is left, and make us watch every bloody minute.
Produced by WWE Films as a vehicle for Stone Cold Steve Austin, this is hack work at its lowest, directed and co-written by one Scott Wiper (tee-hee), his second feature and the first one not sent straight to video. I admit, though, that Austin himself is a droll, even intelligent figure. His deadpan delivery of some “up yours”-style lines early in the film is right on. He seems like he’s probably a friendly galoot in real life. I never thought I’d say a professional wrestler was “above” this kind of trash, but Austin is.
The modern twist (which was already mined by the aforementioned “Series 7”) is that the unwilling participants in the game, gathered from various Third World prisons, are going to have their actions broadcast live over the Internet for everyone to see. No TV network would show something this brutal, but the Internet is the Wild West. You can make a fortune showing snuff films on the Web!
The mastermind is Breck (Robert Mammone), an oily, handsome young millionaire who wants to become a billionaire. The live event will last 30 hours (or until nine of the cons are dead), and his people have been promoting it all over the Internet. Early buzz is good; he’s told that there’s “92 percent awareness.” Whatever that means, exactly — what, 92 percent of ALL Internet users know about the event? Is that even possible? — it’s not good enough for Breck. “I want 100 percent awareness across this Internet!” he declares, stupidly. “This Internet”? What about the other Internets? Do you want those people to know about it, too?
I have nagging concerns about Breck’s business model. He thinks it’s feasible to get 40 million viewers, just like the Super Bowl. If it were free, maybe. But he’s charging $49.99 for access to the site, which I think is going to eliminate most of the target audience for a show in which people murder each other in real time. It’s also a 30-hour event, and I don’t care how interesting something is, nobody’s gonna watch it for 30 hours.
Anyway, he’s set up shop on an obscure island near New Guinea, and now the convicts are let loose and told to have at it. No weapons are provided, at least not initially, but everyone has an explosive attached to his or her ankle, which opponents can detonate in a fight. (You get a 10-second warning after you pull the pin.) Some of the contestants simply try to escape one another and stay alive. Others, like the taunting Brit (Vinnie Jones) and his taciturn, agile Japanese friend (Masa Yamaguchi), use this opportunity as an excuse to torture and kill people.
Then there’s Stone Cold Steve Austin. His character, an American named Jack Conrad, was found in an El Salvador prison, where he’s been rotting for a year. He was on death row because he’s a CIA black-ops agent, and he was doing the Company’s business when the El Salvadorans caught him. He’s not a psycho like his opponents. He only kills when duty requires it. He’s a GOOD guy. He has a girlfriend back in Texas who doesn’t know what happened to him. He needs to win this contest and accept the prize: freedom.
There are several scenes of convicts fighting and murdering each other, occasionally in creative ways but mostly just by blowing each other up. The hand-to-hand combat is always shot with shaky hand-held cameras, the better to disorient the viewer. Two of the contestants are women, which makes the violence against them even more unpleasant. It gets so bad that Breck’s idiot crew members, back in the control booth, start to suffer pangs of conscience. Apparently they thought a live webcast of humans slaughtering each other would be fun, and now it’s turned out to be a real downer instead. Who could have predicted that?!
(It’s a shame they start to get cold feet, because they’re a very efficient crew. There’s only eight or nine of them, yet they’re somehow able to monitor the feeds from all 400 of the island’s cameras, find where the action is happening, and cut to the best shots, all without missing anything exciting.)
So the film is crass and appalling anyway, and then near the end it decides to give a big “F you” to the audience. A TV talking head who interviewed Breck before the event expresses sadness that so many people would be interested in watching such a grim, horrifying spectacle. Those people should be ashamed of themselves, she says. Her tone is serious, and we see viewers hang their heads. She has issued a scathing indictment of our cultural bloodlust.
But wait: If the people who would watch gratuitous, brutal violence on the Internet should be ashamed of themselves, what does that say about people who would go to a movie theater and watch gratuitous, brutal violence in “The Condemned”? You can’t make a social statement decrying the type of movie that YOU ARE! I mean, I guess you CAN — “The Condemned” has done it — but what kind of message is that? “Thanks for coming to our movie! You’re sick in the head for liking it, and you should be ashamed of yourselves! But hey, thanks for buying a ticket!”
You know what, movie? No. You don’t get to do that. You’re not Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven,” using violence to show how wrong violence is. You’re a sloppy, black-hearted pile of crap, calculated to titillate an audience of tools by giving them tough-guy dialogue, savage violence, and Nickelback songs. I have no use for you. Begone, movie!
D (1 hr., 53 min.; )